Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

My Dinner With Fraser

Share |

I've always wanted to be a restaurant reviewer. For Toronto Life or The Globe and Mail, perhaps. Accompanied by a chosen companion, I could dine in the city's hottest spots on the company dime. I could flex my linguistic muscles, waxing poetic about cumulus-cloud garlicked mashed potatoes; wild-as-the-west bison burgers; Gobi-desert hot and sour soup; Botticelli-esque angel's hair pasta. I would possess power. I could commend or trash. I would, of course, remain uncorruptible and incognito: alongside my reviews there'd be a discreet black-and-white shot of me, a broad-brimmed hat pulled down, obscuring my face, a la Joanne Kates.

I called up my buddy, poet Fraser Sutherland. "Wanna come out with me while I blog a restaurant and fulfil a journalistic fantasy?" I thought that Fraser would make the perfect dining companion. He is not only a discriminating gourmet, but an adventurous one. When we go out, as we frequently do, to eat Chinese (The Goldstone Noodle Restaurant on Spadina is a favourite haunt), Fraser eschews touristed territory, such as Chicken Chop Suey, for more off-the-beaten-track destinations, such as baked Portuguese rice, pork congee, and chickens-feet dim sum. At home, he enjoys rustling up such delicacies as: tripe, Puerto-Rican pigs-foot and chick-pea soup, and roast tongue.

Fraser liked my idea. We first, however, had to decide where we wanted to go. A rather long telephone conversation ensued. We eventually settled on the Teranga African Bar and Restaurant, a Senegalese boite that neither of us had ever tried in Kensington Market. When I phoned the restaurant, however, le patron revealed that, while the bar was open, the kitchen had been closed for several months due to the absence of a chef. I called Fraser back. "Let's go to La Palette," I said. "It's a French resto, also in the market, where I know you've never ventured. Pricey. But, hey, it's Christmas, and I'm treating."

When we arrive at 6 pm, the tiny establishment, with its unaffected, French-country decor, is still empty. We choose a spot along the wall. Fraser is not in the brightest of moods. An adored cat of his has gone missing, and he is experiencing computer woes. He is in immediate need of a beer. Our waitperson appears seemingly at our command. He is, in fact, none other than Shamez Amlani, the restaurant's ebullient, knowledgeable, and obliging proprietor. As he doesn't have anything on tap that excites Fraser's imagination, he brings over three bottles for him to contemplate: a Spanish brew called Moritz ("As in Al," Fraser quips); Golden Pheasant, a Czech pilsner; and the Polish, Tyskie. Fraser opts for the Golden Pheasant (and likes it). I order a glass of French Pinot Noir (which I also like).

As our drinks begin to work, Fraser mellows and tells me that one good thing had indeed happened, today. He received in the mail the galleys of his upcoming book of poetry. It's his 9th (!), and it's set to be published by BookLand Press sometime in March. For those of you not in the know, Fraser Sutherland is, without exaggeration, among the top handful of poets writing in English. He favours the plain-spoken diction of, say, Billy Collins, though his syntax is more unusual. (He describes his own style as "deceptively conversational.") He is, to some degree, Canada's Philip Larkin: unromantic, fiercely intelligent, wry. (You can read the title poem of his selected works, The Matuschka Case--TSAR Publications, 2006--here.) He is also an astute critic, editor, and lexicographer.

He hasn't previously told me anything about his current book of poetry, but, tonight, he reveals that it's called The Philosophy of As If. "The title," he says, "is taken from a book of the same name by Hans Vaihinger, a pre-World-War-I, post-Kantian German philosopher who propounded that scientific and moral ideas were 'convenient fictions.'"

I want to hear more about the book, but my ability to concentrate is starting to be compromised by hunger. I already know what I want: confit de canard: "tender pan-seared confit of duck legs, with lentilles du puy, maple roasted parsnips and golden beets." A spin on a classic French dish, which, because I was a vegetarian for more than 30 years, I have never tasted. (I still consider myself a vegetarian, who cheats.) Perusing the menu, Fraser admits that he's the kind of person who, "as soon as he orders something, wishes he would have ordered something else."

"Ah," I say, pointing over to the blackboard where the specials are listed, "you should, perhaps, order from the Menu de Degustation. You'll then be able to sample a variety of dishes. And you could also, just perhaps, allow me to taste them."

Our waitperson appears on cue, and compliments us on our choices of food. I am also in the mood for more wine. Shamez suggests we try a half-litre of the Minervois. "It's crafted from a blend of four grapes," he goes on, authoritatively, "Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, and Mourvèdre," then hurries off to bring us a bottle and two glasses, so we can sample it before we order. Mmmmmm...

While we wait for our meal, I turn the conversation back to Fraser's upcoming book. It's apparently divided into three sections: "Beggars Would Ride" (based on a proverb), "If Wishes Were Horses," and "And All Shall be Redeemed." The final section is comprised of a single, long, 10-page poem. When I comment upon the book's strong theme, Fraser says: "I think a good book of poetry ought to have a unifying factor. If its style is really idiosyncratic, then, perhaps, that alone will suffice to produce unity." He also notes that, "while poems in a book should be able to stand up by themselves, the best books are more than just a sum of their parts."

Just now, the first part of Fraser's meal arrives: monkfish, wrapped in crisped chicken skin, set beside a saffron mound of risotto. "Monkfish," he says, "is an ugly fish. It has a big spine, but no bones radiating off it." Ugly or not, this particular slab of fish is delicious, its mild manner heightened by the richness of the poultry skin. Next in line is the locavore's favourite: bourguignon de bison, i.e,. "slow-braised bison cheek stew, with cremini mushrooms, bacon, beet, carrot, parsnip and pearl onion on fingerling potatoes." I am, at first, a little squeamish about tasting the bison, so Fraser feeds me succulent nibbles of the local veggies. When I do try the meat, I find it falling-apart tender and oddly reminiscent of my maternal grandmother's brisket (Is bison kosher? I wonder, guiltily.)

Fraser's main plat is a smorgasbord of three different all-Canadian steaks: grassfed bison striploin from Ontario; venison tenderloin from Quebec; and wild boar tenderloin from Manitoba. He relishes all three, commenting that they are not too gamey. I don't try them, preferring to concentrate on my confit, which I find satisfyingly seasoned, dark and earthy.

At one point during dinner, Fraser says, speaking of poetry, that "it's ontological. That is, it's the most concentrated way of saying you are alive." And, as we are sharing dessert, an ambrosial vanilla creme brulee, perfectly crusted on top and creamy inside, I'm thinking that the past three hours have also been ontological. In shutting out the world to dive into the realm of the senses, we have also entered a state of pure being. Or, perhaps, we have just been hedonistic. I don't voice my question. I think we are both too sated and happy to decide.

From the upcoming, The Philosophy of As If by Fraser Sutherland:

A PARTY

In darkness my guests dispose themselves
about a rocking table in the middle of my yard,
clumped on collapsing chairs.
Some have dragged out sturdier seats,
and women occupy the back steps,
as though to assert that no one avoids
a passage through the feminine.
With the ceaseless invention so typical of them
my guests have taken candles I've supplied
and stuck them into bottles, no doubt
made other alterations to suit their convenience.
This is one of those parties I am proud to give
in which no one has anything in common.
I lean over the rail to look into the peopled shadow,
the little bonfire bursts of candlelight, and listen
to the distant low agreeable roar,
the nearer sounds of women on the steps
at their tireless plotting, and nod with pleasure
at the world full of these my creatures.

2 comments

Hi Alphonse,

Thank you so much for complimenting me on my taste in knowing what to "hyperlink," and on my technological prowess. My geek son taught me how to encode html! I actually find it fun. Hyperlinks add another layer of creativity when it comes to writing blogs!

I'll click through to your link on monkfish...

Do you write a blog? And, if so, where can I read it?

Karen

Nice links! Not too many and not too few. And you avoided the distasteful "Click here". A technologically literate poet is a beauteous thing.

But stay away from the monkfish. What used to be a discard is now coveted and overfished:

http://www.montereybayaquarium...

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Karen Shenfeld

Toronto poet Karen Shenfeld is the author of The Law of Return (Guernica Editions, 1999) and The Fertile Crescent (Guernica Editions, 2005). Her work has also appeared in well-known journals published in Canada, the United States, South Africa and Bangladesh. Her personal documentary, Il Giardino, The Gardens of Little Italy, was screened at the 2007 Planet in Focus Environmental Film & Video Festival.

Go to Karen Shenfeld ’s Author Page